Goodbye Ashgabat!

Yes, my time in Ashgabat is already over – and who knows if I will ever return to this strange city.
I don’t think I mentioned that the city of Ashgabat was almost totally destroyed in 1948 by a massive earthquake. It was hardly reported at the time due to censorship, but it is said that two thirds of the inhabitants of Ashgabat died, among them the entire family of the former president, Saparmurat Niyazov (which may partially explain some of his behaviour).

There are pictures of Ashgabat in different places of this blog, klick through the pages to get an impression of what the city looks like today.

This is me in front of the UNICEF car which took us to the Airport this morning:

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UNICEF picking us up at 5.45 am to go tho the airport

Let me take you on a last journey through this glittering, shiny and bright “White City” – if you want to see more, go to The Atlantic:

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And …. the last glance at our hotel from the airplane – looking like a very small and faraway egg!

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Law and Order

The time in Ashgabat has passed very quickly and I am already back in Istanbul waiting for my connecting flight to Zurich. It has certainly been a strange place to be. I really have experienced what “Law and Order” means when put into action.

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Super clean shopping centers
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Orderly traffic with policemen at every corner

But it has another side as well. To move freely in the country is almost impossible. Even citizens of Turkmenistan have to always carry internal passports. Although invited by the Government and UNICEF, our passports had to be not only stamped coming in (and getting out), but also required additional stamps indicating that the diplomatic protocol was observed.

Another characteristic of secluded and authoritarian states is the personality cult which is well and alive in Turkmenistan. It was certainly cultivated by the first president Saparmurat Niyazov, generally referred to as Turkmenbashi, leader of the Turkmen. He wrote the book Ruhnama which has to be read in all schools, universities and government offices. Apparently, new governmental employees are tested on the contents of the book prior to being hired.

Certain internet sites  are blocked; you cannot access Facebook, Twitter or Youtube while in Turkmenistan. It is not allowed to take pictures of any public buildings, like the building of the ministerial cabinet. Since I am now already in Istanbul, I can publish the picture I took very early this morning while driving to the airport.

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The Cabinet of Ministers Building

Are you hungry?

Tonight we were invited for the conference dinner by the Ministry of Education. The venue was another hotel – which gave us a chance to get out of our hotel which is generally referred to as “The Egg” (not for eating):

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View of the Hotel Yyldyz where we are staying

So arriving at the Hotel Asghabat, we were seated and immediately invited to start eating – no formal opening, no long speeches while you are hungry, no waiting for celebrities. I took the opportunity to take pictures of the dishes (for eating):

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Tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh cheese and lots of herbs
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Eggplant salad with peppers, tomatoes and herbs
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Different types of cheeses
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Eggplant stuffed with something cheesy
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Cabbage and carrot salad
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Samosa-type things stuffed with meat or spinach
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Fruit for dessert

I missed out on a few dishes in between – mainly meat dishes – I leave that to your imagination. But you have to admit, it looks much better than what was served to Martha Payne.

There were some speeches of course; generally they start with “We thank our president” and end with “we thank our president”. A picture of the president hangs in/on every public building (or even every room) as you can see below – including some of the guest getting into dancing:

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Dancing under the portrait of the president

Our table – all international experts – was not very much into this. We preferred to relax, talk and drink Vodka (yes, they do drink here although it is a Muslim country – must be the Soviet heritage).

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Us international experts – not dancing

And then … the surprise of the evening: Totally unexpected, I ran into my old friend Peter Hübner from Germany  who is participating in a conference which is held parallel to ours. Jazira Asanova (Asian Development Bank) – she spoke about the mobile kindergarten – joined us for this picture. And as you can see: the president is there as well.

Hübner

 

Looking for a place to get married?

The City of Ashgabat is also referred to as the “White City” since all newer buildings are made of white Turkish marble and many older buildings from the Soviet times are currently given a face lift accordingly. Check out the pictures under Turkmenistan to get an impression. But this is not the only reason why you might consider Ashgabat for a truly “White wedding”.

Nowhere else in the world will you find anything like the Palace of Happiness, an enormous wedding complex offering all services you might need when getting married – including a venue to celebrate with your 1000 guests. The Palace of Happiness –  built by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – was inaugurated in 2011 and cost $140 million.

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Palace of Happiness – looking for a place to get married?

The citizens of Turkmenistan receive free electricity, water and natural gas based on a guarantee given by the government which was recently extended to the year 2030. And since there is an abundance of energy to spend, the city lights up at night like nothing you have seen anywhere else. It is certainly glamorous looking and would make a nice backdrop for a wedding picture:

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View of the Place of Happiness at night – taken from my hotel room

Writing this and slowly getting ready to go to sleep – as we are four hours ahead of Zurich which means it is 1 am in the morning here – I am taking a last look at the Palace of Happiness and think of you all in far-away Europe! Good night!

The conference has started!

It has started: the “International …” well … refer to the poster which says everything:

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Conference Poster

May I introduce you to my colleague Paula Frederica Hunt from the Regional UNICEF Office for CEE/CIS – who shared my adventure in Istanbul airport:

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Paula Frederica Hunt, UNICEF Regional Office in Geneva

One of the principles of inclusive education is that the service should follow the child, not the child the service. I learnt today that this can go as far as creating a mobile kindergarten that follows the nomadic families on their travel. Such a kindergarten runs on solar energy, has portable toilets and everything else you need. This is to help children and their families to get prepared for school. It is a project conducted by the Asian Development Bank.

Getting there

There are no direct flights from Zurich to Asghabat – thus changing planes in Istanbul … unfortunately with a six hour wait which was considerably prolonged due to a bomb threat. This meant that everyone had to get off the plane, go back to the gate, go through security again – while all the luggage was taken off the plane to be searched. We finally left Istanbul with a three hour delay, a new crew, but the same plane – arriving in Asghabat just in time for breakfast.

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Turkish police escorting passengers off the plane after bomb threat
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Waiting to go through security – again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hotel Yyldyz – conference venue and home for five nights

Getting started

What do you need for such a mission? Knowing what you will be doing is of course the first thing. For this, UNICEF writes the terms of reference (ToR). But then, you also need an invitation letter from the government so they will issue the visa upon arrival.  And don’t forget 20 US Dollars for the Visa and two passport pictures!